Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy
By Susannah Rosenblatt and
James Rainey (Times Staff Writers)
supplanted accurate information and media magnified the problem.
September 27, 2005
/ BATON ROUGE, La. — Maj. Ed Bush recalled how he stood in the
bed of a
pickup truck in the days after Hurricane Katrina, struggling to help
the crowd outside
the Louisiana Superdome separate fact from fiction. Armed only with a
megaphone and scant information, he might have been shouting into,
well, a hurricane.
and estimates of the dead were wrong.
The National Guard spokesman's accounts
about rescue efforts, water supplies and first aid all but disappeared
amid the roar of a 24-hour rumor mill at New Orleans' main evacuation
shelter. Then a frenzied media recycled and amplified many of the
"It just morphed into this mythical place
where the most unthinkable deeds were being done," Bush said Monday of
His assessment is one of several in recent
days to conclude that newspapers and television exaggerated criminal
behavior in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, particularly at the
overcrowded Superdome and Convention Center.
The New Orleans
Times-Picayune on Monday described inflated body counts, unverified
"rapes," and unconfirmed sniper attacks as among examples of "scores of
myths about the dome and Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees,
the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials."
Mayor C. Ray Nagin told a national television audience on "Oprah" three
weeks ago of people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching
dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."
Journalists and officials who have reviewed the Katrina disaster blamed
the inaccurate reporting in large measure on the breakdown of telephone
service, which prevented dissemination of accurate reports to those
most in need of the information. Race may have also played a factor.
The wild rumors filled the vacuum and seemed to gain credence with each
retelling — that an infant's body had been found in a trash can,
sharks from Lake Pontchartrain were swimming through the business
district, that hundreds of bodies had been stacked in the Superdome
"It doesn't take anything to start a rumor around
here," Louisiana National Guard 2nd Lt. Lance Cagnolatti said at the
height of the Superdome relief effort. "There's 20,000 people in here.
Think when you were in high school. You whisper something in someone's
ear. By the end of the day, everyone in school knows the rumor —
the rumor isn't the same thing it was when you started it."
Follow-up reporting has discredited reports of a 7-year-old being raped
and murdered at the Superdome, roving bands of armed gang members
attacking the helpless, and dozens of bodies being shoved into a
freezer at the Convention Center.
Hyperbolic reporting spread through much of the media.
Fox News, a day before the major evacuation of the Superdome began,
issued an "alert" as talk show host Alan Colmes reiterated reports of
"robberies, rapes, carjackings, riots and murder. Violent gangs are
roaming the streets at night, hidden by the cover of darkness."
The Los Angeles Times adopted a breathless tone the next day in its
lead news story, reporting that National Guard troops "took positions
on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of
refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the
The New York Times repeated some of the reports of
violence and unrest, but the newspaper usually was more careful to note
that the information could not be verified.
The tabloid Ottawa
Sun reported unverified accounts of "a man seeking help gunned down by
a National Guard soldier" and "a young man run down and then shot by a
New Orleans police officer."
London's Evening Standard invoked
the future-world fantasy film "Mad Max" to describe the scene and threw
in a "Lord of the Flies" allusion for good measure.
Televised images and photographs affirmed the widespread devastation in
one of America's most celebrated cities.
"I don't think you can overstate how big of a disaster New Orleans is,"
said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a
Florida school for professional journalists. "But you can imprecisely
state the nature of the disaster. … Then you draw attention away
the real story, the magnitude of the destruction, and you kind of
undermine the media's credibility."
Times-Picayune Editor Jim
Amoss cited telephone breakdowns as a primary cause of reporting
errors, but said the fact that most evacuees were poor African
Americans also played a part.
"If the dome and Convention
Center had harbored large numbers of middle class white people," Amoss
said, "it would not have been a fertile ground for this kind of
Some of the hesitation that journalists might
have had about using the more sordid reports from the evacuation
centers probably fell away when New Orleans' top officials seemed to
confirm the accounts.
Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared on "Oprah" a few days
after trouble at the Superdome had peaked.
Compass told of "the little babies getting raped" at the Superdome. And
Nagin made his claim about hooligans raping and killing.
officials this week said their counts of the dead at the city's two
largest evacuation points fell far short of early rumors and news
reports. Ten bodies were recovered from the Superdome and four from the
Convention Center, said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the Louisiana
Department of Health and Hospitals.
(National Guard officials
put the body count at the Superdome at six, saying the other four
bodies came from the area around the stadium.)
Of the 841
recorded hurricane-related deaths in Louisiana, four are identified as
gunshot victims, Johannessen said. One victim was found in the
Superdome but was believed to have been brought there, and one was
found at the Convention Center, he added.
Relief workers said
that while the media hyped criminal activity, plenty of real suffering
did occur at the Katrina relief centers.
"The hurricane had
just passed, you had massive trauma to the city," said Lt. Col. Pete
Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard.
conditioning, no sewage … it was not a nice place to be. All
people just in there, they were frustrated, they were hot. Out of all
that chaos, all of these rumors start flying."
National Guard Col. Thomas Beron, who headed security at the Superdome,
said that for every complaint, "49 other people said, 'Thank you, God
bless you.' "
The media inaccuracies had consequences in the disaster zone.
Bush, of the National Guard, said that reports of corpses at the
Superdome filtered back to the facility via AM radio, undermining his
struggle to keep morale up and maintain order.
"We had to
convince people this was still the best place to be," Bush said. "What
I saw in the Superdome was just tremendous amounts of people helping
But, Bush said, those stories received scant attention in newspapers or
Times staff writer Scott Gold contributed to this report.